The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism

Do-gooders on vacation call it voluntourism. But is it doing anyone any good?

  • Volunteer Tourism in Africa

    image by Jason Raish /

  • Volunteer Tourism in Africa

“What organization are you with?”

The question was surprising, given that it was the first thing out of the mouth of a stranger who, like me, was sitting poolside at a tropical hotel. What organization was I with? I couldn’t just be a footloose wanderer, out thinking big thoughts, maybe smoking a little of what the locals call chamba? No, of course I couldn’t. This was Malawi.

Malawi is a landlocked nation in southern Africa. Its one claim to fame is that Madonna adopted one of its citizens—“Baby David” Banda—in 2006. Other than that, the country is known mainly to people who collect statistics on global misery. It’s in a three-way tie for seventh place among countries with the lowest per capita income. It also ranks eleventh for overall death rate. By some estimates, the prevalence of hiv/aids in Malawi’s cities is one person in three.

One of the few funny things I’ve heard said about the place was a traveler’s joke: “Malawi? I thought you said we were going to Maui!” It is indeed a laugh to imagine a tourist, expecting Hamoa Beach, instead being dropped on so-called Devil Street in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Not that there aren’t any tourist attractions here. Most of the country’s eastern edge spills into Lake Malawi, which has white-sand beaches and the widest variety of freshwater fish in the world. But the sunburn-and-souvenirs set has generally stayed away. Apparently even bargain destinations have to exceed a threshold of human suffering before they’re accepted as believably fun. Snorkeling among aids orphans doesn’t make the cut.

All of which might suggest that Malawi is off the beaten track. Wrong. The place is swarming with visitors, and almost every single one is with an organization. They are volunteer tourists—or, if you’re a fan of neologisms, voluntourists—and they are among the fastest-growing sectors in international adventure travel. I was one of them.


chhaya gautam
3/24/2013 4:57:54 PM

There are good side too, see here for the story

David Harrington
1/24/2011 2:58:17 PM

This was a great article--I'd expect no less of Utne. I did want to add, however, that there are great ways to volunteer and be a tourist. I suppose, however, that it's really the longer term volunteer opportunities that make a difference. My wife and I wanted to experience life in Central America, and we volunteered at Mayatan Bilingual School in the tourist town of Copan Ruinas ( It was a 1 year commitment that we extended to two years, and we're happy with it. Mayatan is a locally-founded non-profit bilingual school that has taught in English and Spanish since 1991. It started as a one-room schoolhouse and now has 300 students, PK-12th grade. Mayatan provides scholarships to 45% of it students and its English teachers are all long-term volunteers who receive housing, health insurance, and stipend in exchange for their labor. The school also accepts short-term volunteers. I know that past volunteers on a short-term basis have helped with curriculum planning, architecture, reading, ESL skills, and more. Just thought I'd share a nice tale/

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